“Writing Herself Into the Narrative” – A review of ‘Eliza Hamilton’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo

elizaSo, yes, it’s no secret, I’ve been on a Hamilton kick lately. And when I saw Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Eliza Hamilton at the local bookstore, I thought it might be the perfect companion to what I already knew.

I’ve rarely been more wrong.

Tilar J. Mazzeo is not a historian, and this is clear on every single page. I  had misgivings about the book from the start, when I studied the extended family tree at the front of the book and noticed that she had Philip Hamilton (the eldest), dying in 1808 – which would mean that Alexander Hamilton had to return from the dead to give him all that bad dueling advice, given that Hamilton died in 1804, and Philip died in 1801. A typo? Perhaps. But that’s not the only issue with the family tree (which doesn’t lend credence to one of Mazzeo’s later claims), and it didn’t get better from there.

As Mazzeo points out, this is the first full-length biography of Eliza Hamilton – wife of Alexander Hamilton – ever published. As a historian and writer and woman, I think it’s fantastic that we are finally beginning to recognize the women that have been referred to as the ‘Founding Mothers.’ Far from being meek, illiterate, obedient wives, these women were strong, courageous, intelligent, and sometimes at odds with their powerful husbands. But this isn’t new territory – others, including Mary Beth Norton, Kathleen M. Brown, and yes, Cokie Roberts, have all walked this ground before. Today, we don’t often recognize the power these women wielded, or how much influence these women had, so this scholarship is both interesting and necessary.

But I would like to emphasize that key word:  scholarship. That is where Mazzeo, who is not a historian, is lacking in this book.  I’d also like to emphasize the word biography – because in the end, that’s not what this book is.

To be fair, I did like the first chapters, and the last chapters. Mazzeo clearly feels sympathy with Eliza Hamilton, and brings her and her family to life in the opening chapters. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Angelica and Peggy, and later, the youngest sister Cornelia (all of whom eloped against their parents’ wishes!). The entire Schuyler family comes to life in those early chapters, especially Eliza’s mother Kitty.

But when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and to your readers to remain objective, fair, and most of all honest. Mazzeo fails at all three. It’s not just the fact that she liberally peppers the book with her own views as if they were fact (telling us how Eliza felt or acted, when in fact we have no idea if she did or not, and this begins with the very first sentence). For instance, on page 151, she says “Eliza was frantic and had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to come home.” But nowhere does Mazzeo cite her sources for this. If Eliza wrote letters to this effect, Mazzeo has an obligation to cite them, to tell us in the endnotes (which are both inadequate and incorrect, by the way) why this was included. However, because these are not supported with evidence and citations, we are left to assume that all of this is down to Mazzeo’s imagination. In a work of nonfiction, this is not acceptable.

(Also, it bothers me that she repeatedly refers to Hamilton as “Alexander” throughout the book. Even Eliza referred to him as “Hamilton,” most often calling him “my dear Hamilton” in her letters. It’s annoying and amateurish.)

soapboxIn fact, Mazzeo hardly cites anything to support her claims, most of which fly in the face of accepted truths about Hamilton. On page 144, for example, she says blithely, “Alexander and Eliza were not an exception. They owned both enslaved people and indentures.” But, no end notes. No citations. Nothing. How can she say this (especially when Chernow goes to great lengths to point out that we don’t have evidence that the Hamiltons owned slaves) as if it’s gospel? She takes pains to point out that both Eliza and Hamilton kept household account books, that the family was always in a bit of a financial straits. Then where is her evidence for them owning slaves? The one receipt she references is not enough, when there is no evidence afterwards that those slaves ever took up residence in the Hamilton household. If the evidence is there, cite it. If it’s not – then it doesn’t belong in the book.

The title of this review is, of course, a reference to the musical Hamilton – and a fitting one, since Mazzeo makes repeated, Easter-egg references to the musical throughout the book. This only adds to the feeling that she wrote it only to ride the coattails of Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ‘Writing herself into the narrative’ is a reference not to Eliza, though, but to Mazzeo herself. And that brings me to the biggest criticism I have:  her treatment of the Reynolds Affair.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows the story of the Reynolds Affair – in the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, had a torrid affair, and was subsequently blackmailed by James Reynolds, her husband. He thought it long over, until he was accused of using his position as Secretary of the Treasury to do some insider trading to make his family and friends wealthy. Then, to clear his public reputation, he had to confess to a private affair – which did, yes, ruin his political chances, but which he felt was necessary in order to keep his public, professional honor intact. Mazzeo, however, seems intent on painting Hamilton as nothing more than a despicable scoundrel who fabricated a sexual relationship in order to cover up insider trading.

Which makes absolutely no sense. 

Mazzeo all but manufactures evidence to support her theory. She claims that Hamilton gave money to James Reynolds to invest for him, which was illegal; when those transactions were brought to light, Hamilton fabricated the story about the affair and blackmail to cover his tracks. This is where Mazzeo’s complete lack of historical knowledge and training are most evident. She claims – again, without proof – that the letters sent to him by Maria Reynolds were forged by Hamilton (possibly with the help of Eliza), and that is why Eliza stood by him during that time rather than kicking him to the curb.

First – there is no evidence that Hamilton knew Reynolds before this affair. Above, I referenced issues with the family tree. Mazzeo says that Maria Reynolds was a distant cousin to Eliza, and thus, Hamilton knew Reynolds as a relative. Let’s suppose that the family tree isn’t wrong in this case, and Maria was related to Eliza. Did Hamilton know? And if he did, why would he ask Reynolds to invest money for him? Why not secretly slip his father-in-law a few hundred dollars to invest instead? Or – since he was still Angelica’s husband’s lawyer, and handling his investments, why not slip a few hundred of his own money into John Church’s accounts, then withdraw it just as easily when the money had grown? Hamilton was a financial genius, and Mazzeo forgets this. She studied Eliza – but never Hamilton. Hamilton never really earned enough to support his family. When he died, he was $50,000 in debt. Do we really think a financial genius would have engaged in insider trading and yet not made a penny at it? 

Second – Hamilton would have never done anything to tarnish his reputation, or do anything that might possibly destroy the very things he’d created – the Treasury, and the Bank of the United States. Even a whiff of scandal at that time would have been just cause for his political foes to dismantle both and discredit him. He fought too hard, for too long, to jeopardize them in any way. The Republicans were looking to bring Hamilton down any way that they could. Insider trading – especially entrusted to someone Hamilton didn’t know?! – would have given them the ammunition they needed. There is absolutely no way he’d have risked that. None. Mazzeo needs to read Gordon S. Woods’ “Revolutionary Characters” for a better understanding of how these men viewed their honor. Sacrificing his marriage, admitting in public to a sexual relationship, in order to save his public and political honor – yes, these are precisely the things Hamilton would do. She admits several times that he was a bit of a hound. Yes, he was. And when someone under stress meets someone looking pretty . . .

As to why Eliza never kicked him to the curb – again, to anyone who has studied the eighteenth century, this is no mystery. Divorce was not unheard of, but for a woman, it was difficult to obtain. Where was she going to go? Would she, a devoted mother, risk losing her children? Risk their reputations? She had no choice but to support him. Besides, who’s to say what went on behind closed doors? Who’s to say what was in the letters she burned at the end of her life? Again, this goes back to the idea of public honor, which Mazzeo doesn’t understand. Eliza had a duty as Hamilton’s wife – and a Schuyler – to remain at his side, to not add fuel to the rumors. (It’s not as if it’s the first time a strong, independent woman has done this, after all – Hilary Clinton, anyone?)

There are other small issues of scholarship as well – for instance, she cites a letter from Angelica as proof that Eliza encouraged Hamilton to resign from the Treasury, but she cites the letter as being from 1793 or 94, not 1795 as Chernow does. A small thing, perhaps, but again, something that throws into question her veracity and judgment. In the few images in the book, she cites a portrait of Philip as being of William. Again – when you write history, every detail has to be exact, every idea has to be supported by evidence. If not, it throws into question your entire ability to do the work. And I already had those questions before I started reading.

Mazzeo treats the Reynolds Affair as if it was the midpoint of Eliza’s life – in truth, Hamilton’s murder was the midpoint of her life (she was 48 in 1804), and a scant 53 pages are given to the rest of her life. She lived another half a century, raised the rest of the children on her own, lost her family (including her father and Angelica), created New York’s first orphanage, fought for her husband’s rightful place in history, went west in her 80s, for God’s sake, to see her son William, and . . . all that in 53 pages?!

So no. I wanted to like it. But her treatment of Eliza is too light, too fictional, to be taken seriously, and as I said – in the end, I felt that all Mazzeo wanted to do was write herself into the recent Hamilton narrative by spending way too many chapters on the Reynolds Affair, which she neither understands nor cares to understand.

My hope is that someone else will do Eliza’s story justice.

 

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In Which ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ – and Saves Mine!

A while back, I mentioned that I’d been avoiding my manuscript like the proverbial plague, and I was. Definitely was.

I have a love/hate relationship with my work, as most authors do, I think – we want to see it thrive and grow and succeed, and yet, sometimes, the damn things insist on doing the exact opposite. You say ‘Characters! Do this and this!’ and they say, ‘Eh. Go away.” You say, ‘Plot! Sit up and roll over and fetch!’ and the plot says, ‘Yeah? Make me, wuss.’ After a while, you get tired of carrying a rolled-up newspaper in one hand and treats in the other, and you give up and go away.

That’s where I was pretty much all spring. For years, I’ve bee thinking I’ve found The Thing That Will Make It All Work. Every time there’s an issue, I go out, I read books, I find The Magical Solution (which, of course, never turns out to be quite as magical as I hope it to be).

But this time, I might actually have done it.

save the catAt Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, I picked up a book called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Based on the popular screenwriting guide Save the Cat!, this book applies those techniques to novel writing, utilizing the ‘beat sheets’ that make movies so compelling to make novels just as compelling.

The subtitle of this book is a bit egotistical:  The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I can’t say that’s true – but this book saved my life and my novel and that IS true!

I always knew there was something wrong with the novel that had to do with the plot and structure. I had betas read it. They declared it to be fine. The characters were fine; the dialogue was great. But something was always off about the plot, and no matter how I tried to fix it, it never worked. My characters had problems! They wanted to solve them, and they tried hard to solve them! Why wasn’t that enough?

Well, with one paragraph, Brody made it all clear to me. I don’t know why – it’s just how she phrased it:

“Now, the question is, what does your hero think will fix those problems, or what does your hero think will better their life? Whatever the answer is . . . that is your hero’s goal. That is what they will be actively striving to achieve throughout the novel (or at least in the beginning). . . . And most important, what will really fix your hero’s life? What does your hero actually need? This is the crux of your story.”

Suddenly, in the space of two pages, I was scribbling in the margins. I never scribble in margins. But here I was, writing down sudden plot points and holes and how to fix them. And I did that through the entire book. 

For example:  my MC, Erin, states on page 10 that she is done seeing ghosts. They have screwed up her life for the last time. So her want, or what she thinks she wants, is to be normal and ghost-free. That has to drive the novel, in part, and I realized that it actually never does. She’s even given hints on how to do it, and never follows through! Boom! Instantly, I sat down and within an hour had two great scenes drafted in which she does just that. Plus, I highlighted that want through the rest of the novel. What she needs, of course, is to give in to her gift and learn to live with it. And by the end of the novel, she learns that lesson. (Great. Now I just gave away the ending!)

Does that mean the wants can’t change, or that your characters can’t have more wants? Of course not, and Brody provides several examples of novels in which the hero’s wants change during the book.

Chapter 2 of this great book is the Beat Sheet – where Brody walks us through the three acts that all stories should have. If you’re like me, that idea has never quite gelled, never quite made sense. Well, Brody fixes that! All three Acts are placed in the context of the 15-Beat Story Arc. Each Act has set ‘beats’ that should be included (as much as possible), in order to ground your novel, ensure the characters are doing their part, and make sure you have all the components of a successful, suspenseful novel. She discusses the purpose of each act, and then explains each Beat contained therein, along with its purpose.

The clouds parted. The skies opened. The sun shone. The angels sang a chorus. Seriously. It was THAT much of a revelation! I suddenly saw where the holes were. Where the plot and structure had gone awry. What scenes were missing. What scenes needed to be deleted. Where the tension needed to be punched up. Where the secondary storylines needed beefed up or changed. I was getting ideas AS I WAS READING. I finally understand the importance of the Midpoint! Once Brody characterized it as ‘the shit just got real! beat,’ I GOT IT. Raise the stakes. Make it impossible to back out. Fast-forward the deadline. Throw in a major plot twist. All of these belong to the Midpoint, and I finally get it!

In the rest of the book, Brody explores how the Fifteen Beats apply to various genres. She chooses a book in that genre and walks you through it, beat by beat, so you can see the underlying structure. She also provides you with a list of other novels in that genre you can read and study as well.

This is quite possibly the best $14.95 I’ve ever spent on a book. EVER. I have rewritten this novel so many times, but this is the first time I can truly say I feel at peace with the rewrites, that I truly see why I’m doing them. Most of all, this is the first time I feel that the rewrites are worth the effort. That I feel I may actually get somewhere with them, that this time, it’s the real deal. I have a bit of research left to do – again, structure holes! – but I feel closer than I’ve ever been.

And it’s all thanks to Save the Cat!

Seriously, Authors: Finish Your $%!@* Series.

Readers love series.

We know this, as readers and as writers. Publishing houses and agents tell us this all the time. When you submit a novel, the first thing an agent asks is, “Is this a series? Could it be?” We invest in series. We fall in love with the characters and the settings. We follow them over years and follow the authors on Twitter to see when that next book is coming out. We get antsy when the author says, “It may take a bit longer than I thought . . .” and we pounce and demand to know the new deadline.

And it doesn’t matter if there are three books, or seven, or more. It doesn’t matter how long we have to wait, as long as we know that book is coming (right, Outlander and Game of Thrones fans?!). We only halfway joke about being ready to donate a kidney or lung to the author if necessary, so long as they finish that freaking series in our lifetime! I’d even dare to say that we live in fear – just a little bit – that something might happen to prevent our favorite authors from completing our favorite series.

But you know what I hate more than almost anything? More than hangnails, more than melted ice cream, more than a car that won’t start because it needs a $1600 fuel pump?

Authors who don’t finish their $#/(&^@! series!!!!!!!! 

The thing I despise most is an author who starts a series, and then just – abandons it. Abandons the characters, and abandons us, their readers. Abandons the whole thing to go traipsing off to greener pastures with new characters. Or maybe they get to a point where they suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next.

NOT ACCEPTABLE, PEOPLE.

81NOl5U5bULOf all the authors who have likely done this, Dean Koontz is the master offender. In my opinion, his two best books – of all the books he has written in a very long and prolific career – are the first two books of the Moonlight Bay Trilogy, Fear Nothing, and Seize the Night. These books are absolutely amazing. The characters – Christopher Snow, his best friend Bobby, and girlfriend Sasha – are the kind of characters that stay with you more than twenty years after you first read their books. I devoured them the second they were released. Amazing characters, incredible plots, mind-blowing tension. Fear Nothing was released in 1997; Seize the Night, in 1999. And because the second book ended on a cliffhanger, I waited, anticipating that third one like I anticipate the return of the Starbucks’ Mocha Coconut Frappuccino.

Know how long I’ve been waiting on that third book?

Twenty years. 

Yes. Twenty years. TWENTY FREAKING YEARS, DEAN. Give me my damn third book already! You cannot leave us with our characters in the middle of a cliffhanger crisis! In fact, I’ve boycotted Dean Koontz and all his novels until I get that third book. I’m not the only one who’s upset by this, by the way – there are websites devoted to this. He’s been saying the third book is ‘in the works’ or ‘halfway done’ for 19 years. At this point, I think we can safely assume it is, in fact, not halfway done.

Dean, here’s a personal message to you from me:  sit your ass in a chair, and write the third freaking book. NOW.

My second most frustrating offender is author Maureen Johnson. She’s a British author, and has written several books, but you may know her best because she took a break from writing the Shades of London series to co-author some books with Cassandra Clare. Not acceptable! Cassandra Clare is capable of writing her own novels. We got the first three in the series, and the third one left us on a cliffhanger that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for two years! (Before someone points this out, YES, I’m aware that there’s a new novella about Stephen, but it’s not a continuation of the series.) Again, a freaking cliffhanger?! What the frack?

soapboxLet me get on my soapbox for a minute:

WRITERS, IF YOU INTEND TO EMBARK ON A SERIES, KNOW WHERE THE HELL YOU’RE GOING WITH IT, AND WHEN THE HELL YOU’RE GOING TO FINISH IT.

See, when you put fingers to keyboard and start that very first book, when you introduce those characters and their problems, when you start to draw us into the world you’re creating, you are making a contract with us. You are promising that if you write this, and if we read it, you will finish it. You will keep writing. We, as readers. trust that you know where you’re going with the series. We trust that you have a process, a road map. We trust you to get us there, with your characters. We may not always like the choices you make, but we are there and we are reading because we have made a contract with you in return:  you write, we read.

Pick up any book on writing, especially any book on writing a series, and the very first piece of advice is this:  make sure you know your overall story arc before you ever start. Obviously, things might change a little.  You might find that certain plot twists don’t work out the way you thought, or that certain characters take over and do things their way. That’s fine. But work with it. You’ve made a contract with us. We’ve invested in your and your characters. We’ve shelled out money to buy your books. We’ve stolen time from other activities – work, watching Big Bang Theory reruns, watching the kids’ soccer games, whatever – to read them.

You have a responsibility to deliver on your promise. You, dear writer, have a responsibility to us – and your characters – to know the ending before you begin. That’s the heart of a series, after all – that overall story arc that carries us through several books to a conclusion that we just can’t wait to read, and at the same time, can’t bear to read. Imagine how long JK Rowling would have lasted if she’d gotten to the end of Book 4 and suddenly . . . she sheepishly announced she didn’t think the series would continue because she wasn’t sure where to take it from there? Millions of teenagers would have hunted her. (So would millions of adults, for that matter.)

If that means you write the first three novels of a series before you have a firm grip on where it’s going, like Naomi Novik, go for it. You don’t have to publish one, and then another. My plan is precisely that – write the first three, then lay the groundwork for the next three. If that’s what you need to do, do it. But do not, for all that is holy, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR READERS HANGING.

They will never forgive you for it.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, Dean Koontz.

 

Hamilton, Outlander, & The Rule of Three

I have a new obsession.

As a historian, it was probably inevitable. As a die-hard hip-hop hater, it definitely wasn’t.

That new obsession is Hamilton. 

chernowYes, I realize I’m late to the game, though in my defense I have been using clips from the musical in my Anthropology class to illustrate how different cultures can interpret historical events, and utilize different methods to celebrate them. Which is a fancy way of saying ‘who thought you could talk about the Founding Fathers using hip-hop?’ (But let’s face it:  I’ve long had a bit of a historical crush on the guy.) Along with that, I’ve also been reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography upon which the musical is based.

If you’ve never heard of Alexander Hamilton, I’m truly sorry for you and wonder which rock you’ve been living under for the past three years. In the 1980s, this was my favorite commercial (still is!):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLJ2Vjv2x18

And then, of course, a young artist named Lin-Manuel Miranda came along and, in 2015, turned a forgotten Founding Father into a household name.

But, that’s not what I came to talk about today. Last week, during my 37th listen-through of the Hamilton soundtrack, something hit me hard:  Miranda’s incredible use of the Rule of Three in the musical.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2If you’re asking “Rule of Three? What’s that?”, here’s a short definition:  The Rule of Three adheres to the idea that we retain things best when iterated in threes. It can work at any level of anything you’re writing:  from sentence structure, to character development, to story arcs. It works best when it’s subtle, when the reader takes 37 times to cotton on to the idea. Trust me, it’s in their minds! You don’t need to hit them over the head with it.

A great example (at the sentence level) is the Declaration of Independence. We all know it by heart:

We hold these truths to be self -evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . 

There. In that one sentence, we see the Rule of Three used twice. There are three truths in this sentence, and three of those truths are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Read it silently. Read it aloud. Notice the rhythm? That’s what makes this such great writing. The rhythm helps us remember it as well. It drives the points home.

Another great example is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

Notice especially the last three lines. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics. And then, of course, the three-fold repetition of free at last. King was a gift writer and speaker. He knew what he was doing. (Fun Fact:  most of that speech was off the cuff. Improvised. For more on that bombshell, you can read this story from Forbes:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2013/08/27/public-speaking-how-mlk-improvised-second-half-of-dream-speech/#581ae2f25c5b)

My major lightbulb moment coincided with something Chernow said in the book, that Hamilton – at least in his early days – thought dueling was a preferred way to uphold one’s honor, and that in certain circumstances, one must fight. Chernow also alluded to the fact that we suspect Hamilton may have been involved in more duels than That Most Famous One, either as a participant, a second, or at the very least, an adviser.

Yet only three are used in the musical.

  • The first duel:  Hamilton acts as second to his best friend John Laurens, in a duel against Charles Lee. Lee was shot in the side, but survived; both men walked away with honor intact.
  • The second duel:  Hamilton advises his eldest son, Phillip, that if his honor needs to be upheld, he should fight; Phillip does, and is killed. This is a complete reversal of the first duel; we expected Phillip to survive, but he didn’t. Also, it’s presaged by the music:  the song for the first duel, ‘Ten Duel Commandments,’ is echoed later in the song ‘Take a Break,’ in which then-nine-year-old Phillip is learning to count in French.
  • The third duel:  Hamilton and Burr face off. And we all know how that ends.

Each time, with each duel, there’s rising tension – and rising stakes. The first time, Hamilton’s reputation, and best friend, are at risk; the second, his son; the third, his own life. It’s a perfect use of the Rule of Three. But it’s not the only way you can use it.

At the story arc level, the Rule of Three can be used in several different ways. You may use the same motif or theme three times. A character may appear three times. A similar scene may occur three times. The trick is to make sure that each of them serves a purpose. The first two times, the character may solve the problem easily, and then lose the third time. Think about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. There are three tests for the Champions to pass. Harry survives the first and second one, but the third one . . . This is a pattern known as ‘success-success-reversal.’ You set your readers up to expect your characters will succeed that third time – but of course, your readers are smart and they know that can’t happen. Therefore, you’re increasing the tension for them. They expect the reversal. Then, it’s up to you to pull it off in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying.

You could also use the Rule of Three to let your characters learn from their mistakes:  failure, failure, success. This can be used to demonstrate that a character has changed over the course of the story arc, and their new skills, or the ways in which they’ve changed, mean they’re ready for the climax of the book.

I’m considering how to use the Rule of Three in the novel I’m currently writing. It’s pretty powerful and effective if you can do it! Take, for example, Diana Gabaldon and Outlander. Claire Randall Fraser goes back in time, and meets Captain Jonathan Randall – the ancestor of Claire’s husband, and a ‘bloody filthy pervert,’ as Claire later describes him. In their first official meeting, he beats Claire; in their second, he tries to rape her. Gabaldon sets it up perfectly, so we know that if there is a third encounter with Jonathan Wolverton Randall, it will not be pleasant. Needless to say, there is a third encounter. It is not pleasant. It is also, however, not Claire who is in the most danger in that scene. Gabaldon escalates the tension, but also gives us a reversal.

So how can you use it? I’m still working on it! But I think I have at least one way figured out; it’s just going to take some cutting and some rewrites to make it work. But hopefully, when I’m done, those three scenes will be far more powerful, and advance the story more effectively, than the myriad little scenes I’d had before.

 

https://www.dianagabaldon.com/other-projects/the-cannibals-art-how-writing-really-works/the-cannibals-art-jamie-and-the-rule-of-three/  – this is probably where I first learned about the Rule of Three! Diana Gabaldon lays out how to create a perfect Rule of Three in your novel, using Outlander as an example.

https://amyraby.com/2013/08/26/writing-technique-the-rule-of-three/ – another good blog post about the Rule of Three

https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/rule-of-three-in-writing/ – this is a great little article that addresses the Rule of Three at the macro level – but you can see how powerful, yet subtle, it is! If it works in marketing, it can work in literature.

 

 

Off the Brakes – Back to Writing

I haven’t written lately, mostly because I’ve been a.) really busy with the end of the semester, b.) without any ideas of what to write, and c.) a little depressed with the coming of winter. And frankly, I’ve been putting the brakes on my writing.

I’ve talked about this before, but to me, writing is like driving. You’re not great at it when you start. I remember the first time my mom let me drive our old 1985 Mazda stick shift. I made it to the end of our dirt road just fine, put the car back in first, and when Mom said turn right, I did. Right into the ditch. She never told me to stop turning, after all! But with practice, we all get better. Every single thing we learn is a new skill. Some of us prefer automatics; others stick shifts. Some of us have both. Some of us like convertibles, others minivans, others sports cars. Some of us never get away from driving in the 3 and 9 positions; others drive with our knees while we do ‘YMCA’ with our hands. (Not that I do that or anything.)

About a month ago I gave my friend a copy of my work in progress. It’s definitely not his genre – his favorite book is The Godfather, and I think his second favorite is basically anything by or about Theodore Roosevelt, so an urban fantasy about ghosts was, I knew, going to be a stretch for him – but I trust his judgement. Plus, he’s well-read, so I knew that where I was most struggling with this book – the plot structure – was where he could really zoom in and help me.

Then, over the last week, I started having doubts. Not about giving him the book – about the book itself. Again. This is what I always do – I run through the things that might or might not be true, might or might not be wrong, and I freak out. Put the brakes on the whole thing. Go back through. Rip it all up and burn it down and start over. And in the end, I think for a while it’s better – but then, the cycle starts over and I’m right back where I started.

In fact, it’s been so bad lately that I haven’t even been able to write on the sequel – I know more or less what revisions I want to make and I was able to work on it a little last week and felt pretty good about that, but since then, nope. Again, the doubts come running in and the brakes get put on. It’s sort of like driving a Formula One car, I imagine – you have to drive fast, you have to be 100% committed to putting balls to the wall, but going 200 mph is so freaking scary, and when you add in another 15 or 20 cars and put them on the same track – well, you can either put your foot on the gas or the brakes. Brakes are bad in a Formula One race. Brakes are bad in writing, too.

And I’ve put the brakes on lately.

In fact, last night I called him and said, “It’s all just a waste of time. It took me ten years to put that piece of crap in your hands!”

“It hasn’t been a waste of time,” he said. “You’ve been doing something you love, and you’ve been getting better.”

It took a little while, but he convinced me to not give up quite yet. Admitted it’s not his genre, but that so far he’s not finding anything glaring. For now, at least, it’s enough to get me back to the coffee shop, with the Hamilton soundtrack on my earbuds (my new obsession!), and back to writing.

Foot off the brake. Back on the track.

 

Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

Log Lines and Story Flaws – Kristin Lamb

I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:

https://authorkristenlamb.com/2018/09/fatal-flaws-story-structure/